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FBI Expands its Definition of Rape—Will We Take It Seriously Now?

The FBI's new rape definition may mean crime statistics are about to skyrocket, but our culture's tolerance of rape could plummet.


Late last week, a subcommittee unanimously voted to update the FBI's definition of rape, which has not been altered since 1929. The current definition is laughably archaic, defining rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

Men are explicitly excluded. The FBI clarifies: "By definition, sexual attacks on males are excluded from the rape category and must be classified as assaults or other sex offenses depending on the nature of the crime and the extent of injury.” Statutory rape and rape with inanimate objects, like the one Abner Louima endured at the hands of police officers, don't count either. This language has been used to excuse the slew of rapes that occur when a victim is intoxicated and unable to consent. And oral rape, like what was alleged against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also fall outside the definition.


Activists have been pushing for a new definition for years, but the issue went into high gear in February, after Representative Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) attempted to make women who hadn’t been raped “forcibly” pay for their abortions out of pocket. The proposed new definition is far more to the advocates' liking, and far closer to reality: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

If the entire All Points Bulletin votes yes to this wording in December, and FBI director Robert Mueller makes it official, the Uniform Crime Report may reflect what rape actually is, and therefore cause crime rates to skyrocket. Because of the narrow definition currently on the books, the FBI's reporting of rapes nationwide are hopelessly inaccurate. States and cities report other kinds of rape locally, but the FBI neglects to include them in their annual crime reports. The FBI didn't include any of Chicago's 1,400 rapes last year because the city uses a definition that doesn't line up with the FBI's language.

These new numbers could lead to more resources being allocated to investigate rapes, which are sorely needed; the backlog of rape kits that go untested because cities are broke is a huge problem. And it could result in communities trusting their law enforcement more. Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and major advocate for the change, told PRI that "in some communities, when they know a serious sex crime has occurred and the report comes out (and it's not listed), the community thinks the police are lying and not reporting it."

More symbolically, a spike in rape numbers could serve as a wakeup call for everyone. We're a culture that continually looks the other way on rape cases that don't fit our narrow definition of the "perfect victim"—a straight, white, sober female held at gunpoint in a dark alley. Lending legitimacy to all kinds of rape victims may make cops think twice before they tell kids not to dress like "sluts" in order to avoid sexual assault. It may give someone pause before he makes a prison rape joke or waves off a situation where a girl was too drunk to say yes or no. They're only numbers, but having real statistics will make it easier for all of us to turn abstractions into hard facts.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ctrouper.

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